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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Information and Education Programs (The Salt Creek Wilderness)

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The Salt Creek Wilderness:
Illinois Zoo Offers Interactive Environmental Learning Experience


Barb Lieberoff
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
P.O. Box 19276
Springfield, IL 62794-9276

The western section of Brookfield Zoo is called Salt Creek Wilderness. It includes a quarter-mile hiking trail, the 4-acre Indian Lake, and a new 1-acre demonstration wetland called Dragonfly Marsh. This 10-acre wooded area focuses on native Illinois plants and animals and provides naturalistic experiences for many of the zoo's 2 million annual visitors.

Staff from Brookfield Zoo, Illinois EPA, U.S. EPA Region 5, and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission created the unique educational interpretive experience. The first goal was to develop a "big idea" that would serve as the underlying theme for all of the experiences in the Salt Creek Wilderness. The big idea is "Healthy urban watersheds must be managed to provide clean water resources essential for diverse plant and animal habitat."

Key concepts were developed to support the big idea, including the role people must play in managing natural systems, the definition and importance of biodiversity, the impacts of nonpoint source pollution, and appreciation and conservation of natural areas. Next came the development of statements and interactive mechanisms for conveying these ideas, especially concepts like nonpoint source pollution and watersheds. These concepts were translated into graphic signs and interactive devices. The zoo plans to do a summational evaluation to quantify the effectiveness of the messages and the usage of each element.

Dragonfly Marsh consists of two deep pools, an emergent aquatic area, sedge meadow, wet prairie, and prairie. In addition, more than 12,000 individual plants, including flowers, grasses, sedges, and bulrushes, have been planted in the marsh. To create the wetland, two soil scientists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service surveyed the area to determine the soil suitability and design the wetland. The area was excavated and graded. Water is pumped from Indian Lake into the pools and then allowed to flow and percolate through the soils back to the lake.

An 85-foot boardwalk, constructed of wood from tropical ipe trees, overlooks the wetland. Lining the boardwalk's railing are about 250 color illustrations that identify the plants, mammals, fishes, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians that can be found in northeastern Illinois's woodlands, prairies, and wetlands. At the end of the boardwalk is the Biodiversity Gallery, a 30-foot by 30-foot covered shelter. A collage of signs communicates the importance of biodiversity and explains why people should work to protect it. In the gallery, children can also learn about biodiversity by reading the giant storybook The Adventures of Duncan the Dragonfly. The children's story details the life cycle of a dragonfly and introduces a number of the animals that share the dragonfly's habitat.

Several strategies are necessary to manage the wetland and allow new growth to develop fully. Surrounding the wetland, 850 feet of 7½-foot-high fencing prevents deer from trampling and eating the plants. In addition, a grid of black nylon rope with white flags is stretched across the entire site to discourage geese from landing and destroying the vegetation.

This project began in July 1996 and culminated with a celebration on August 14 and 15, 1999, highlighting the Indian Lake and Dragonfly Marsh interactive exhibits. Salt Creek Wilderness is a tremendous educational tool that encourages zoo guests to explore and understand the complex relationships among water, plants, and wildlife. It also gives people knowledge of nonpoint source pollution and how to reduce it in their local environments.

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